Monday, October 26, 2015

What is a Reformed Baptist?

What is it that makes a "Reformed Baptist" distinct from other kinds of Baptists and Reformed folks?  Reformed Baptists grew out of the English Reformation, emerging from Congregationalism in the 1640's for some very specific theological reasons.  Here are some of the theological identity markers of Reformed Baptist churches.

1. The Regulative Principle of Worship.  The earliest Baptists separated from the Congregationalist churches that practiced infant baptism because they believed that the elements of public worship are limited to what Scripture commands.  Because the Bible does not command infant baptism, the early Baptists believed that infant baptism is forbidden in public worship, and the baptism of believers alone is permitted.  The regulative principle of worship limits the elements of public worship to the Word preached and read, the sacraments, prayer, the singing of Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and whatever else the Scripture commands.

Many Baptists today have completely abandoned the regulative principle of worship in favor of entertainment oriented worship, consumerism, individual preferences, emotionalism, and pragmatism.  Such Baptists have abandoned the very principle that led to their initial emergence.  I doubt they have the right to identify as "Baptist," since they don't hold to the regulative principle, which is an historical precondition of Baptist existence.

2. Covenant Theology. While Reformed paedobaptist churches often insist that they alone are the heirs of true covenant theology, historic Reformed Baptists claimed to abandon the practice of infant baptism precisely because of the Bible's covenant theology.

Reformed Baptists believe that God made a covenant of works with Adam, which he broke and so brought condemnation on the whole human race.  But God mercifully made a covenant of grace with His elect people in Christ, which is progressively revealed in the Old Testament and formally established in the new covenant at the death of Christ.  The only way anyone was saved under the old covenant was by virtue of this covenant of grace in Christ.

Baptist covenant theologians believe they are more consistent than paedobaptist covenant theologians with respect to covenant theology's hermeneutic of New Testament priority. According to the New Testament, the Old Testament promise to "you and your seed" was ultimately made to Christ, the true seed. Abraham's physical children were included in the old covenant, not because they are all children of the promise, but because God was preserving the line of promise, until Christ, the true seed, came.  Now that Christ has come, there is no longer any reason to preserve a physical line.   Rather, all who believe in Jesus are sons of Abraham, true Israelites, members of the new covenant, and the church of the Lord Jesus. In both the Old and New Testaments, the "new covenant" is revealed to be a covenant composed of believers only, who are forgiven of their sins, and have God's law written on their hearts.

Baptists today who adhere to dispensationalism and new covenant theology have departed from their historical roots and from the hermeneutical vision of the organic unity of the Bible cast by their forefathers.

3. Calvinism. Because Reformed Baptists held to the covenant theology (federalism) of the 17th century, they were all Calvinists.  When Adam broke the covenant of works, God cursed all human beings with totally depraved natures, making them unable and unwilling to come to Christ for salvation.

But God didn't leave the human race to die in sin; rather, in eternity past, God unconditionally chose a definite number of people for salvation and formed a covenant of redemption with Christ about their salvation.  At the appointed time, Christ came into the world and obeyed the covenant of redemption, fulfilling the terms of the covenant of works that Adam broke.  In the covenant of redemption, Jesus kept God's law perfectly, died on the cross, atoned for the sins of the elect alone, and rose from the dead, having effectually merited salvation for them.

God made the covenant of grace with His elect people in which He applies all the blessings of life merited by Christ in the covenant of redemption.  The Holy Spirit mercifully unites God's chosen people to Christ in the covenant of grace, irresistibly drawing them to Himself in their effectual calling, giving them a living heart, a living faith and repentance, a living verdict of justification, and a living and abiding holiness, causing them to persevere to the end, all of which life-blessings are the merits of Jesus Christ, purchased in the covenant of redemption, applied in the covenant of grace.

4. The Law of God.  Reformed Baptists believe the 10 commandments are the summary of God's moral law.  They believe that unless we rightly understand the law, we cannot understand the gospel.  The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ kept the law for our justification by living in perfect obedience to earn the law's blessing of life and by dying a substitutionary death to pay the law's penalty.  But the gospel isn't only a promise of justification.  It's also the good news that Christ promises graciously to give the Holy Spirit to His people to kill their lawlessness and to make them more and more lawful.

Therefore, while justified believers are free from the law as a covenant of works to earn justification and eternal life, God gives them His law as a standard of conduct or rule of life in their sanctification.  God's moral law, summarized in the 10 commandments, including the Sabbath commandment, is an instrument of sanctification in the life of the believer.  Believers rest in Christ for their total salvation.  Christ takes their burdens of guilt and shame, and His people take upon themselves the yoke of His law, and they learn obedience from a humble and gentle Teacher.

5. The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689. Most of the early Baptists, both in England and in America, held to the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689.  While certainly not all Calvinistic Baptists held to this confession, it was the dominating influence after its publication. This confession, based on the Westminster Confession (Presbyterian) and the Savoy Declaration (Congregationalist), was originally composed and adopted in 1677, but it was formally published in 1689 after English persecution had lifted.

Historic Reformed Baptists were confessional.  They were not bare "biblicists." They did not believe that individual church members or individual pastors have the right of private interpretation divorced from the historic teaching of the church.  They believed that the Bible alone is sufficient for doctrine and practice, but they believed the Bible must be read in light of the church's interpretive tradition.  The Reformed Baptists believed that their theology was anchored in the church's rich theological heritage and that it was a natural development of the doctrine of the church in light of the central insights of the Reformation (sola Scriptura: no baptizing infants; sola fide: only converts are God's people).

Many Christians today are of the opinion that they have the right to read the Bible independently and come to their own private conclusions about what it means without consulting the church's authorized teachers or the orthodox confessions of faith.  But Scripture teaches that the church is the "pillar and support of the truth."  The church as a whole is charged with interpreting the Bible and God has authorized teachers in the church throughout history.  Therefore, while every individual Christian is responsible to understand Scripture for himself, he dare not do so without carefully studying and understanding what the great teachers of the past have taught about the Bible.

Reformed Baptists hold to the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 because they believe it is a compendium of theology that best summarizes the teaching of Scripture in small compass.


  1. A very good statement over-all. However, it would be better to replace the last point (about the 1689) with a statement that Reformed Baptists believe in the Reformation solas, beginning with Sola Scriptura. Their use of the 1689 confession is an expression of their Biblical theology, not a definer of it. Further, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox say exactly the same thing about the "church" (and hence confessions) defining belief, including determining the interpretation of scripture. Finally, while you're right that early Baptists, as derived from Puritanism, were not "bare Biblicists", they, as with Puritans, defined their beliefs with scripture, not with reference to confessions.
    John Carpenter

    1. Thanks for the comment John. I intended to get at your point with these words: "They believed that the Bible alone is sufficient for doctrine and practice, but they believed the Bible must be interpreted in light of the church's interpretive tradition. The Reformed Baptists believed that their theology was anchored in the church's rich theological heritage and that it was a natural development of the doctrine of the church in light of the central insights of the Reformation (sola Scriptura: no baptizing infants; sola fide: only converts are God's people)."

      Also, the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox do not say exactly the same thing about the church. They believe in two pillars of equal authority: tradition and Scripture. The Reformed Baptists believed Scripture alone is the supreme authority by which all tradition is to be judged. But they also believed that tradition has a subordinate authority to Scripture. Just as we are justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone, so also we submit to the authority of Scripture alone, but not by Scriptural authority that is alone. There are ecclesiastical interpretive authorities, and our interpretation of Scripture should take that into account. American individualists tend to think that their private interpretations are the supreme authority. This is what I oppose.

  2. Just saw this today on Twitter - a very good article. I appreciate especially the placement of the Regulative Principle first: this follows Calvin's priority of the reform of worship before the reform of theology.

    I know I'm jumping into an old discussion in this thread, but re. Reformed Baptists and the 1689 - Tom Hicks has chosen to define "Reformed Baptists" by reference to the old Particular Baptist movement, which is quite proper. As such, to say that they were confessional is correct. I wonder whether any group of Particular Baptists ever pointed to the Five Solas as a summary of their doctrine; I rather doubt it. The whole point of confessionalism is to avoid minimalism, and Particular Baptists were always confessional.

    We might go a step further, though. The actual term "Reformed Baptist" is a term of rather recent origin (early 1960s to be exact), and its precise meaning is "Baptist who subscribes to the 1689 Confession of Faith." It was initially intended to distinguish the Reformed Baptists not from Arminian Baptists, but from other Calvinistic Baptists who did not hold the confession. That being the case, this article actually needed the final point!

    Again, great article. I'm not sure what was the context for tweeting it today, but I enjoyed seeing it.

  3. Thank you for this article it is very helpful. One question I have on the back of it: what did you have in mind in terms of things done in a worship service which would not be in line with the regulative principle? Can you give me some examples to flesh it out a bit more in my mind. Many thanks. Brian.

    1. Hey Brian, good question. At the extreme, I'm thinking of puppets, miming, marketing gimmicks: like giveaways, interpretive dance, dramas, etc. I know of a church that did a Wheel of Fortune style spin the dial to win a prize. Also, formal liturgies with pomp and ceremony, smoking censers, bells, incense, formal processions and marching. Also, the sign of the cross, kneelings, chants, and even the wearing of priestly vestments. Practices such as slaying in the spirit, ecstatic utterances, barking, etc., are also violations. Another violation is infant baptism, since the Bible nowhere commands it, but it is practiced in some churches. Does that help?

    2. Other examples would include altars, priesthoods, prayers to Mary and the saints among Roman Catholics. Evangelical churches violate the regulative principle with clowns, movies, magicians, comedians, weight lifting, short secular concerts to "reach the lost," etc.

  4. Thanks Tom that's great. Many thanks for this post it is excellent and very helpful for me as I explore these things.